Redesigning Disegno


8 April 2016

Sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

After nine issues and five years, Disegno #10 marks a fresh start. What was once a biannual magazine has been reconceived as a quarterly journal, with a completely new design devised by Disegno’s new creative directors Florian Böhm and Annahita Kamali, the co-founders of the Munich-based design agency Studio AKFB.

Why redesign? In the conversation that follows Böhm and Kamali are joined by Johanna Agerman Ross, Disegno’s founder and editor-in-chief, to try and answer this question. Led by questions from Oli Stratford, Disegno’s deputy editor, Agerman Ross, Böhm and Kamali discuss not only the technicalities of the redesign, but also their wider ambitions for Disegno moving forward.

Oli Stratford Johanna, you began this process so you should start us off with discussing it. Why did you want to redesign Disegno

Johanna Agerman Ross I felt that the way that the magazine looked didn’t necessarily represent our content any more. We've been around for five years and this will be our tenth issue, but when we started out it was a very different set up: it was just me and a lot of freelancers. But now we're a team of five and our approach to how and what we publish is different. 

Oli How so?

Johanna We have a wider variety of articles. We do everything from roundtable to Q&As to features to reviews, but the existing design didn't really accommodate that. We were just making do with what we had, trying to make the best of it, but it didn't feel like we had a full solution. 

Oli Florian and Annahita, did you know the magazine before Johanna contacted you? What were your impressions of it?

Florian Böhm We didn't know it very well, although Johanna had contacted me once before because she was looking for a photographer for a project. So I knew the magazine a little bit, but we weren't subscribers and we didn't have a clear idea of what it was. 

Oli What were your impressions when you started to get to know it? What did you want to retain of how it had been in the past and what did you want to change?

Florian What we felt most strongly about was that the magazine is really well researched. It uses a lot of text, but this wasn't well represented in the layout. We were concerned about readability, legibility and so on, and we wanted to do justice to the text. The existing layout used a rather small font size and it wasn't very pleasant to read or celebratory of the text. We also felt that the layout rules – the grid and the tools used to layout the magazine – weren't so flexible.

Annahita Kamali We wanted to be able to accommodate the new content, so we needed more flexibility.

Florian Some stories are more text based, others are more photo based; some are short, some are long; some features repeat in each issue, whereas others are one-offs. The existing layout elements weren't really making that visible to the reader. 

Annahita But you also asked what we wanted to retain from the old magazine. What we really liked was the existing format, so the new magazine is roughly the same size and the same thickness as the old magazine. Everything else we changed. 

Johanna Maybe it’s a strange thing to want to go in such a different direction, but I felt that we needed it. Florian and Annahita were really great partners in discovering where the magazine can go, because although there are things that we can develop in terms of content, they’re the ones who have given us a toolbox to deal with that. The most exciting thing for me is not seeing the redesign, but rather seeing the possibilities that are now available to us.

Oli What was the brief for the redesign?

Johanna I wrote it last summer when I was looking at why we wanted to redesign. Basically setting words onto paper about what we wanted to achieve. When you do a redesign I guess you have to ask yourself why you're doing it; you can't just do it for the sake of looking different. So I wanted to look at all the things within the look of the magazine that I didn't feel represented what we were about or where we wanted to go. So it was a fairly extensive text document that almost became a journey of self discovery in understanding what we were about.

Oli Why did you ask Florian and Annahita?

Johanna I mean, it's a really good question because there are so many designers and so many graphic designers to chose from. I had to look at who was out there and whose work I appreciated that had a relationship to the design industry. It was important that it was someone who understood that industry and where we came from. As Florian said, we were in touch about a photoshoot a few years ago, but it was the Konstantin Grcic exhibition Panorama at the Vitra Design museum that was the key reference for me. Florian and Annahita designed the catalogue for the exhibition and it was a really pleasant object to read and hold. It had all the qualities I wanted to achieve in the magazine.

Oli Florian and Annahita, why was it an interesting project for you to take on? It’s the first magazine you've done.

Florian Well, we are very interested in visual systems and magazines rely on those. We love creating something that lasts and making choices about paper, format, font sizes and all of that. We've never done a magazine, although we’ve made books, so it was really interesting to be asked to redesign one: you almost feel as if you're starting from scratch.

Annahita It was also reassuring that Johanna came to us having seen our work and liking it. We weren't afraid to try because we knew she liked the way we work. We were trying to bring our experience with books into the magazine world. 

Florian Which was our first question: what could help a magazine like Disegno that has a high text quality, but also a high text quantity? It’s very unusual to find a magazine that isn’t primarily visual. Magazines that do have text are usually text-only and designed for a very small audience. 

Annahita People don't collect most magazines: they read them once and then throw them away. That’s a pity for Disegno, because it’s content that is still worth something. It was interesting to approach it with the idea of a book that people would want to keep. 

Florian It was a good start to look at how books are made, because we learnt the ground rules for text. At the same time, it still has to be a magazine and not a book. A magazine is a wild mix of content and our biggest challenge was finding rules and graphic elements that let you to design a magazine as complex as Disegno in a few months. Those choices are the foundation of the visual appearance and are absolutely crucial because a magazine is not only about one issue. Each issue will have a different focus or a different mix of content, so you need a set of different graphic elements that can play together in different ways. You don’t want to have to spend so much time on each magazine rethinking all of these questions.

Oli What are some of those elements?

Florian In terms of specific choices, we used a slightly larger font size to improve legibility and that led to a slightly larger format to fit the larger text. We felt that Disegno had a very strong appearance in the past, which was based on a very strong headline font. That font, Grumpy, meant you could recognise Disegno and so it was right at the time that the magazine came out. But it had a very limited use now because it was so strong, so we replaced it with two different font families that have much more variation: Tiempos and National. 

Oli Why did you use more than one font?

Florian If you have long texts, then you really want to choose a font that's best for reading, so typically you would use an serif font like in a newspaper. We used Tiempos. At the same time, a magazine also has shorter texts and captions, so it’s very helpful to have a more straightforward font like National such that you can distinguish between those two different types of content. 

Annahita But the two fonts still look somehow similar. They’re very different, but they somehow belong to each other.  

Johanna There's an interesting anecdote around that. When we foiled the cover we did the same cover in the two different fonts, but the foilers spent a good half an hour looking at the two versions and didn't understand what was different about them.

Florian Because they're not so different, it becomes a quieter, more subtle way to communicate. You can deal with any kind of content with these two fonts, so the decision as to which fonts to use is the one we’ve made that will have the longest lasting impact on Disegno. You can play with a magazine in different ways, but you can never escape the look of it. 

Annahita We also created two different logos which use the two fonts, because we couldn't decide which to use. The old Disegno had such a strong logo, so to create a new logo with the same strength didn't feel right because then you have competition. We wanted a more subtle version. The serif has the same kind of look as the old one, but it's thinner and a little bit more elegant. Then the sans-serif is more modern. It seemed nice that the reader might think about which they prefer. You have a design position as a reader, so a design magazine should start from a design position. 

Florian It raises the whole question of what a logo is in the context of the magazine. Is the magazine a brand? I think the old magazine’s look was a more conventional way to approach a magazine, which Disegno should be beyond. Having two logos is a little bit provocative and plays with questions of identity. It's a nice experiment to see where this leads us and where Disegno finds itself. 

Annahita I think the two logos also make it more about the content, because if you show something in two versions then it somehow negates itself: you just see the content. Everyone is so obsessed about identity and how they present themselves and we kind of loosened that up a little bit.

Johanna Of course it's risky going from a really strong, recognisable logo to something that's much more subtle and interchangeable. But this whole process was a journey of rediscovering what we are about. Having two logos is a possibility rather than a problem. Also, we’re a magazine that covers and supports the design industry, so I didn't want to stop Florian and Annahita from the journey they were on. When people are given freedom you get really great outcomes.

Oli We've spoken a lot about redesigning the magazine, but on the cover it’s not actually referred to it as a magazine anymore: it's now a journal. What are the implications of that? “Journal” has certain connotations.

Johanna Calling it a journal is probably truer to the type of stories we publish: essays and reviews. We look at a period of time in design and we comment on it in a critical or analytical way. All of our ideas start with us and our contributors rather than from PRs or external forces, so I felt the idea of a journal reflects a more personal process.

Oli One of the things we haven't talked about yet, and which will be obvious to readers, is the change in the treatment of images and photography in the magazine. You mentioned that you wanted to celebrate the text and that Disegno is a magazine for reading, but where does that leave images? 

Florian We found that photographs in previous issues were mostly used to illustrate text. They didn’t communicate on their own. We didn't have time on this first issue to explore this to the extent that we would've liked to, but we want to make more room for photography. In general, we want to raise consciousness of what you can do with photography and the different ways in which you can use it.

Annahita It's about deciding on why we have each image: is it there to communicate something emotional or aesthetic, or is it to illustrate something? 

Florian Readers are so educated about photography now that there's a lot of potential in what it can do as form of communication: seeing a photographer as an author, rather than someone commissioned to add something to a visual. Communicating visually is part of the design world, so it’s something to develop.

Johanna I don't think text works in a magazine without images and I don't think images become interesting without text. It's the mixture of the two that makes a magazine.

Oli The cover is going to be the first thing most people see of the new Disegno and it's very different from the covers of most other magazines: it’s quite text-heavy, with three small images. It moves a long way away from the archetype of a single big, beautiful photograph on a cover. 

Johanna Firstly, it was important that the cover wasn't about presenting something that is a fully formed, finished product. I wanted to show Disegno as something that we are working on. By contrast, having a big lead cover image says that that image is the thing that communicates the magazine more than anything else; it’s the thing you’re most proud of or the sexiest shot that will sell the most magazines or whatever.

We’ve gone with three smaller images that are not in themselves super significant, but which feel as if they’re giving a little bit of a teaser. They’re showing a little bit of the magazine but not saying "We've done a redesign and it's bombastic and grand and listen to us because this is what it's all about." It's maybe more about seeing many different possibilities with the magazine going forward. It’s only after a year of doing this that it will come together as a body of work. I feel that the cover is polished, but it also represents where we’re at with the redesign. 

Florian Johanna summed it up really well. Luckily, we don’t have to face a situation like a lot of competitive magazines where we’re selling through a kiosk, next to hundreds of magazines that have to scream for attention. We don’t feel that Disegno has to do that and you have to appreciate that if other magazines didn’t need to compete on the newsstand, then they wouldn't look like that either. We just went with what we had and what we had was a lot of text. We wanted to show the new font in use and we wanted to symbolise the importance of text. We have the three images because the magazine concerns itself with three different types of themes – design, architecture and fashion – so it represents that variety. It’s not trying to be loud and spectacular; it’s more about content. 

Annahita And also it’s not saying that the redesign is done. It’s more like it’s just started.